The story takes place during the Blacklist of the 1950s, when a schlubby Woody Allen is hired by his blacklisted writer-friend Michael Murphy to pretend to be the real writer of Murphy's scripts -- and he ends up taking on other clients, as well. It's very funny in many parts, but overall it's quite a serious film at heart, so it was a huge departure for Allen in several ways. But it was a pretty important movie for him to do.
One thing that makes the movie so notable is that it was written by a blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein, who got an Oscar nomination for it (and among his other credits wrote Fail Safe, Semi-Tough and The Molly Maguires), and was directed by a blacklisted director, as well, Martin Ritt, whose many films include Norma Rae, Hud, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Sounder and many more. In fact, much as I love the movie, my favorite part of The Front is the closing credits which not lists all the actors and filmmakers involved who had been blacklisted, but the year they were blacklisted.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I heard back from the lovely woman I'd recommended The Front to -- and it turns out that there was another movie by the same name, and she ordered that one from Netflix instead. She said it was about a couple of detectives tracking down a serial killer, and she found it very confusing. All the more so, I'm sure, because it wasn't the movie with Woody Allen and Zero Mostel.
Eventually she got the right film and liked it very much -- though (in part because she had lived through the Blacklist era) she found it very intense and upsetting. Personally, while I find much of story upsetting, I also find it a wonderful story of survival, especially since we know from history what the end result was. I also love it because Woody Allen's character goes through two changes -- from nebbish to self-confident jerk to hero. And she agreed.
This all got me to thinking about the film again, and wanting to see it. There are a few noteworthy things about the cast. The first and most obvious is how good Woody Allen is, in a role that’s both comedic and dramatic. And how it was the first movie he was ever in that he didn’t write. (He’s only done it one other time.) It's a terrific performance and difficult one, given that he goes through those two separate changes.
The other thing is about Zero Mostel. He had a reputation as always being very outrageous and difficult to direct, whether on stage or in a movie. But from all I’ve read and heard about the film, he was incredibly “professional” during the production, without ever getting out of line or causing the slightest problems. By all accounts, that was because the movie was extremely important to him. Not just because he himself had been blacklisted, but also because the character he played in the film was loosely based on a friend of his, who had gone through a particularly difficult time.
A couple other small tidbits:
The actor who plays the TV show’s producer, who Woody Allen submit his fronted scripts to and who has to fire Zero Mostel was a fellow named Herschel Bernardi. A bit whimsically, in real life he was the stage actor who replaced Zero Mostel on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.” He also was the original voice of Charlie the Tuna is the ads for Starkist. I've written about him several times here, including a piece about him in Fiddler on the Roof, where he was considered arguably as good if not better than Mostel The article included footage of him performing "If I Were a Rich Man," and you can find it here.
Andrea Marcovicci plays Woody Allen’s love interest, and had a short feature film career, that was okay, but didn’t pan out very long. However, she's had a respectable career on TV and was a regular on the Trapper John, MD. spinoff of M*A*S*H for five years. Mainly though, she’s a great singer, and has had a very successful career as a solo cabaret performer, in which she’s still active in.
I tried to find a good scene from The Front to post here, but the only ones I could find give away too much that important in the plot. And the trailer isn't very good, far more dark and heavy than the movie is. The best I could find is this scene between Woody Allen and Michael Murphy which sets up the plot. It says "Trailer" here, but it isn't.
And while we're at it, here's a bonus. This is an interview from only three years ago with the then-93-year-old Walter Bernstein, who at the time was teaching screenwriting at NYU. For all I know, he still is -- the good fellow is still around at 96. (If there appears to be an emphasis in the piece about who was Jewish, that's because this was done for The Jewish Channel.)